Along with the laboratory, there is a new playground for scientists who are pushing boundaries – Big Data. This is the large datasets scientists have increasing access to such as genetic data, health care records or internet use. Scientists are not just tapping into different kinds of large-scale research data but are seeing opportunities to generate their own data in unique and innovative ways. ‘The Great Brain Experiment’ is a mobile phone app developed by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.
It’s designed to generate information from the general public, replicating some of the tests normally done by researchers in a more elaborate way in the laboratory. ‘Neuroimaging is one of the tools we have in neuroscience to work out what’s going on in the brain,’ explains Harriet Brown, a PhD student at the centre and one of the game’s developers. ‘It can tell us where things are happening. And it can also give clues to things that can’t come out from behaviour.’ Brown gives the example of someone who has seriously improved after a having a stroke, their speech coming back, showing how neuroimaging generates relevant insight, ‘you can look in their brain to maybe see why it is they have managed to get their language back but somebody else hasn’t. Is it because they didn’t damage the language areas? Is it because they managed to start using other areas to generate language? That’s the kind of question neuroimaging can really answer.’
The Great Brain Experiment
Conventional neuroimaging experiments sometimes involve volunteers playing games, brain activity is then mapped by an fMRI scanner. ‘The Great Brain Experiment’ app enables the general public to play these same games, with scientists asking questions on a much larger scale. Traditionally the experiment would have been conducted with between 10-20 people, often students. The pool was restricted in its sample making it difficult to see patterns that become visible when working with bigger data. Brown explains, ‘if you measure the height of 10 people you’ll end up with a spread of heights, even if that contains 5 men and 5 women. If you only have 10 people you’ll never work out that there are two types of people, men and women. But if you have a thousand people, 500 men and 500 women then you might start to be able to see that that’s happening.’
The games initially launched in the app focused on four fundamental questions – How good is your memory? What makes you happy? How much can you see? How impulsive are you? The first game they did says Brown was around decision-making. You could take a prize you knew for certain, or you gamble on getting an even bigger prize – or nothing. ‘This is looking at lots of things. How do people value reward? Most people are risk-averse,’ says Brown, ‘they get less excited about things as they get bigger and bigger. If you could gamble to double your money, if the original reward is very, very big, they would be less likely to do that than if the original reward is quite small.’
Originally the team were hoping for 5,000 people to sign-up. At the end of the first month they had almost 20,000 and now have 45,000. Four new games will be released in November. The advantage of this digital app is that it can continuously generate data. ‘All the old games will still be available,’ explains Brown, ‘so the app will get richer and richer as time goes on. People can keep playing, can keep submitting data, it’s always useful. This is something that’s going to run and run, and just get better and better.’